The smiles, hugs and high-fives following the Lakers' 92-88 Game 4 victory Sunday over the Denver Nuggets didn't just reveal appreciation over a hard-fought victory. It showed the team's recognition that it's on the verge of eliminating the Nuggets as they enter Game 5 Tuesday at Staples Center with a 3-1 series lead.
The Lakers have a good reason to feel giddy, going 28-7 since 1999 in closeout games. Yet it's misleading to compare stats. Those wins came during the Phil Jackson era. It spanned the Lakers' three-peat years featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. It included a blip where Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Phoenix Suns in 2006. Even the past three seasons featured a drastically different roster.
But here are some ways to ensure that the Lakers close out the series Tuesday instead of making it unnecessarily close.
Clutch performances: The Lakers can handle this in a few ways. Andrew Bynum could lead the way by punishing the Nuggets inside, either through posting up or exerting energy on defense. Kobe Bryant could kill Denver in single coverage by hitting his ridiculously impressive Kobe-type shots. Pau Gasol could bury his midrange jumpers with deadly accuracy.
Every Lakers victory in this series has featured some semblance of at least one of the Big Three playing well. Sometimes even two, or all three. Bryant scored at least 30 points in the first two games. Bynum tied an NBA playoff record with 10 blocks in Game 1 and then dropped 27 points the next game. Gasol's 13 assists through Games 1 and 2 eclipsed that of even Denver point guard Ty Lawson. With Denver's season on the brink, there's no doubt it'll throw everything possible it can at limiting them.
Wild-card efforts: Nuggets Coach George Karl believed it was inevitable that the Lakers' Big Three would produce. The Lakers' production has always centered around Bryant scoring and the team's bigs producing. They can make things more difficult, but it's hardly realistic for that to be self-sustaining. That's why Karl penned particular importance on preventing the Lakers from having a "wild-card" player.
This scenario has often proven the difference in giving the Lakers an edge, and it's come in various forms. Devin Ebanks provided 12 first-half points in Game 1 in place of Metta World Peace, while Steve Blake nailed three consecutive three-pointers in the first quarter. Jordan Hill has proven so relentless inside that he posted double-digit efforts in both Games 2 and 4. Lakers guard Ramon Sessions sprinted to 10 fourth-quarter points in Game 2, following it up with a late three-pointer in Game 4. Blake complemented that outside shooting with his own dagger, scoring eight fourth-quarter points in Game 4 after proving to be a non-factor. It's critical that at least one of these players provides an extra spark to complement the Lakers in Game 5.
Get off to a good start: As ugly as the Lakers' Game 3 loss looked, they likely would've been able to squeak out a win had they not fallen behind so early in the first quarter. Attribute that to the entire team, particularly Bynum, opening the game with little energy. Considering the Nuggets have nothing to lose, they'll definitely take advantage if the Lakers open Game 5 the same way. No need to further extend this series when the Lakers are better served trying to rest up against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals.